personalized expeditions in music from a musician who doesn't matter

The kids are alright

Posted by r on December 13, 2011

(edit cleanup 3.19.13: On Spotify / Internet-music-service payouts and the tenuous link made by some other guy on the Internet between those low payouts and today’s general lack of musical innovation, re: which I disagree and instead put the blame on both musicians eager to find their way through the worst signal-to-noise ratio in content history and the modern-day listener with a 15-second attention span. Whatever.)

Like I said, yesterday I was Twitter-pressed by the incredibly talented Mr. Wedren to read an interesting op-ed piece over at a college newspaper, The New School Free Press. Didn’t realize it was (probably?) a student piece at the time, but it’s a well-written one that does at least raise a few interesting questions about the worlds of music and finance these days.

In essence, the editorial draws a straight line between Spotify, in particular, and the death of music. We could argue whether that in and of itself is fair. Spotify has only existed stateside for six months, less than three years internationally in very select markets. No one really seems to know what labels or artists are paid for streaming play on the service, which seems to be by design.

Much has been made of a famous report that Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” generated $167 in Spotify revenue for over a million plays. This is really the only “revelation” that’s yet been publicly made as to how Spotify compensates artists, and of course the company itself has responded with “yeah, but see, but this, but that, conclusion: this report is bullshit.” Hard to know what the truth really is in this case, and it’s really the only one available to point at when the issue of Spotify artist compensation comes up.

So after he tweeted this, I politely asked Craig over Twitter what his Spotify royalties looked like so far, knowing that I– a paid Spotify mobile-subscription user since day one of its US availability– have listened to his latest record Wand on the service four times in its entirety, and that said listens were about 45-60 days ago. With a release in mid-September, I reckoned he might at least have some initial reports as to earnings on that record through Spotify. His other solo record, Lapland, is also available there, as is much of the Shudder to Think back catalog. Mr. Wedren said he didn’t have a clue at this point what Spotify would eventually pay him, but mentioned that– in his experience– compensation from ALL download purchases is pretty much laughable.

Right, so here’s the rub. This is what little I know, and only from book larnin’, as a guy who’s only had a couple of pitiful songs out on indie labels (with no after-the-fact compensation resulting, ever) and has otherwise spent his entire life giving everything away for free: The old-school music industry’s method of artist compensation was the reason why most pro musicians from that era have had to have lawyers and accountants. It was / is an absolutely insane kludge of a system with variables upon variables (…upon variables), with absolutely no one trustworthy at the top. Sure, people sometimes actually got paid, and yet I would be willing to wager my whole savings account that virtually no one in the major label system ever got paid anything like what they were contractually due to get paid.

As a result, even huge-selling artists have always made a huge chunk if not the bulk of their living through live shows. Songwriters got paid primarily through broadcast royalties, managed– somewhat thankfully– by organizations outside of the record labels themselves, who in turn were probably taking more than their signed-on-for share off the top. And yes, this is probably me at least partially talking out of my ass, but this is what I’ve read and heard again and again and again. Re: eager upstarts on major labels, back in the olden days when major labels actually signed eager upstarts, see also: S. Albini’s infamous “Some of your friends are probably already this fucked.” I think that guy probably has a better clue than me what he’s talking about.

Anyway, fast-forward to 2011– or 2005, take your pick. I say this because there have been plenty of questions leveled at Apple re: the compensation of labels and artists on iTunes sales. Like everything else Apple-and-money-related, it’s nothing but a black box to 99.99999999% of the world. All that’s been made clear is that the labels don’t seem to think they’re getting enough of the share, but then again, they NEVER think they get enough of the share. And whatever / whenever the labels DO get paid, they don’t seem too concerned with managing the trickle-down to artists in turn. See also: Tim Quirk of Too Much Joy’s semi-famous blog entry from 2009, “My Hilarious Warner Bros. Royalty Statement.” I am definitely sure, from the evidence on display, that that guy also has a better clue than me what he’s talking about.

It’s not just iTunes that operates like a black box where label and, in turn, artist compensation are concerned, with Apple-grade NDAs making sure that no one really has a clear picture just where the hell the money goes. It’s Amazon, it’s Rhapsody, it’s all these people, and in many cases I’m sure it’s the labels themselves (where direct downloads from the label’s site are concerned). This is a whole new level of willful befuddlement of the artist. No tangible product means that it’s strictly their word against the musician’s. Yeah, it’s basically the fucking Wild West.

So it’s all well and good to demonize a service like Spotify, which offers unlimited access for $0-10 a month and refuses to show anyone its books, and say that– on the basis of just one popular story about a laughable payout, the details of which are naturally in utter dispute– it’s killing music. It’s all well and good to tell people that they really ought to go to pay for a record instead. But this is a system that has been set up from the get-go to obfuscate sales from the artist, and with the new world of purchased downloads, it’s probably never been worse in that regard. Unless you are AT THE SHOW and putting your money directly into the artist’s hot little hands, it’s never been anywhere near a guarantee that going out and buying a record equates to an artist getting to eat 1/5th of their McDonald’s combo meal tonight.

I don’t care if you do buy an indie product in physical form from a local record shop. All you’re doing is helping move inventory for that particular shop and allocating a few bucks toward the store’s rent and overhead. The record’s basically already been paid for by the shop itself at wholesale.

What happens to the money past that point is anyone’s guess– some to the distributor, the rest to the label, which then in turn is supposed to pay their artists their tiny remaining cut. But the history books are full of far more shady fly-by-night indies that demonstrably ripped off their artists for tens or hundreds of thousands before disappearing into the ether, and only a few that actually treated their artists like they said they would treat them when they signed their contracts (or made their handshake agreements).

A few other questionable assumptions and connections are made in this editorial which are worth considering. Are labels really playing it so safe these days because Spotify isn’t paying them enough to bother with artistic risk? It seems to me that they moved to their current business model– “release nothing but utter bullshit”– long before the concept of legal music downloads was a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye.

What of the famed Radiohead “pay what you want” model? Should that band also be demonized (for reasons other than their overrated and boring music, that is)?

Yes, it’s true that only an act like Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails– riding on the coattails of their old-industry successes– can take a seemingly “take it, here, free” record and turn it directly into millions of dollars straight into their pockets. Yes, it’s true that, post-In Rainbows, even fewer people think that $15-25 is a reasonable price for a record in the wake of that particular marketing campaign. If it hadn’t been In Rainbows, though, some record using this model would have turned up much sooner rather than later. (And it did turn up well before Radiohead; there are countless artists like me who put their stuff up for free and/or with suggested-but-not-required donation for years beforehand.)

Does all of this equate to the lamented lack of musical innovation? Do artists really go for the cheap buck rather than creating something truly new, because the payout is so small that larger quantities than ever must be sold to make up the slack? Hogwash.

I recently read another, professional-media op-ed somewhere which drew a connection between the New World Order of music downloads and the incoming personal wealth of artists. The argument goes that only the already-rich can afford to make music now, like running for office. Of course, getting elected pays out a lot better than making music ever has, especially now– which was the crux of the argument: Without a backup source of income, there’s no time to make music. I would argue that, the centuries-old violence of the economy against art being far from a new thing, much of the music-making world has always been the domain of the well-to-do. I mean, just ask a few orchestral violinists what their instruments cost. Compare your mortgage payment.

Anyway, I digress somewhat. The lack of musical innovation now has very little to do with the lack of literal payoff for those who innovate, or those who aid and abet innovators. If there’s no money in music anyway, if it’s so impossible to get noticed through blogs or Youtube or whatever (and I would definitely agree that it is), then we should theoretically be in a golden era where musicians have no motivation other than to make music purely for themselves, purely as they hear it in their crazy imbalanced heads. It’s never been cheaper to record; frankly, since everything is done on a computer now and you have to have a computer just to live life at this point, it’s free to record. And it’s never been easier for musicians to spend all the time they want (or can possibly spare) working on the weirdest, wildest shit they can dream up.

Critics are historically the frontline of promotion when the weirdest, wildest shit emerges out of the artist’s bowels, and have helped facilitate such materials’ move from the darkest recesses of the artist’s mind to something resembling a visible movement. Those critics are instead busy currently promoting whatever cultural retread has just been released for the nineteenth time with a new crop of twentysomethings charmingly revisiting the music their dad lost his virginity to.

I don’t blame the critics either. I blame the musicians. If you’re young and strong and wild enough to handle the grueling torture that is a self-financed tour, you’re definitely young and strong and wild enough to produce truly interesting, compelling, groundbreaking music.

I have never been more bored listening to new music, for the most part, than I have been over the last ten years. I hear something truly exciting and new about once every 1-2 years, maybe, if I’m lucky. And yes, I still hear about those things from critics (or armchair critics) most of the time. Nothing coheres. Nothing becomes a movement capable of further developments, or at least nothing really interesting does (read: yeah, dubstep can go fuck itself with a pointy WUBWUBWUBWUB). That’s an interesting phenomenon / sign of the times. It’s good in a few ways, but mostly incredibly bad. Innovation isn’t being stifled so much by lack of money as it is by a vast glut of content, and equal access to the podium for both innovators and rehashers alike.

Look, there’s no arguing that music has been devalued for many of us in the Internet age. It’s a case of so much music, so little time, more than ever before, with the incredible accessibility of home studio technology playing a huge role in this “devaluation” that is rarely considered in this debate. There’s absolutely no question that there are hundreds of millions of people who no longer see the point in paying for a record. I would argue that they’re right in that thinking. Naturally, there’s a point in supporting the artists you love, like supporting the causes you love. But as ridiculously connected as we are now, there are many ways to do it other than buying their albums.

I surely wasted thousands of dollars as a kid buying albums that were mediocre-to-unlistenable. The artists in most cases probably never saw a cent anyway. But should you only pay for something in the world of music if you like it? Well, we’re allowed to return damn near everything else at this point if it sucks. It was only the record industry’s tireless lobbying and home-taping-related excuses that got them special consideration at the Wal-Mart customer service desk. That special consideration has always been totally undeserved, especially since you also ended up paying special hidden taxes to the RIAA on things like blank cassette tapes and music CDR blanks, thanks to our oh-so-agreeable legislators. It’s time for that model and way of thinking to end, just like it’s far beyond time for the existing music-industry model as a whole to disappear.

If Spotify didn’t exist– and again, until very recently, it didn’t– the try-before-you-buy genie would already be out of the bottle in the form of BitTorrent, thousands of MP3 blogs, any form of P2P you can name; only a Google search and thirty seconds stands between you and the object of your aural desire. Spotify just makes it slightly less criminal to try out records the modern way… and hopefully, if you listen on Spotify, SOMEONE will eventually see some money even for the “meh” records that you deleted from your playlists after track four.

What I think the world needs is a nagware version of Spotify. The details of such a service in my eyes bring up a whole other can of worms where the financial worthiness of modern-day downloads are concerned. I think I will leave that for another post (and/or to be summed up succinctly in my lone anonymous comment on this student’s op-ed piece… I feel so lonely in my ire!).

8 Responses to “The kids are alright”

  1. Andrew said

    My generally uninformed impression is that it’s the music labels that keep spotify et al. agreements and royalties secret – in connection with the gaga royalties thing they were said to be chomping at the bit to release real figures. I don’t think apple has much skin in the game in terms of iTunes royalties either, their split is pretty public as far as I know. I’d be willing to bet that any seeming obscurantism is contractually mandated by the majors via most favored agreements etc. They really are a piece of work.

  2. SiD said

    Aside from all the monetary issues, I just don’t understand Spotify. Are there really people who want to hear Zeppelin IV, and run to Spotify to stream it, cackling in delight that they don’t have to pay for it? I guess maybe people use it for new music discovery, but I’m just as happy to listen to those 90 second samples on iTunes and then know if I want to add an album to my library. Either it’s good and I want it, or it’s not and I don’t. I don’t really have a Spotify-enabled middle ground. Does Spotify have curated lists, effectively creating mp3 blogs? I guess that’s useful, but not new. Pandora and seem more likely to help me discover new music (though I admit to not using either).

    Are these perhaps the same people who call in and request things on radio stations? “Hey Maddog can you play Dexys ‘Geno’ for me?” Really? How about type in “Dexys” and “Geno” on Youtube and listen away? And if you like the song well enough to bother to call some jock, fork over the $.69-$1.29 to buy it, or, hell, just steal it.

    • r said

      First off, the Zeppelin catalog– like the catalogs of the Beatles, Floyd, and/or Metallica– isn’t available on Spotify. It’s my feeling that the catalogs of these particular outfits should be released into pure public domain on the sheer principle of the thing. They’ve paid for enough RIAA hijinks and needless marketing-suit salaries since they came into existence.

      Secondly, I *do* use Spotify to listen to albums I haven’t heard before. I don’t cackle that I’m getting them for “free,” because I’m not– I’m paying money for the privilege, and I still get a lossy product with no packaging or liner notes, often with tracks arbitrarily removed (for instance, most Geffen releases make tracks > 10 minutes unavailable on Spotify, and I’ve noticed a lot of major labels also withhold major charting singles or whatever from the full album).

      Thirdly, 90-second samples? What the fuck? Who can get ANY idea of what a record actually sounds like, or feels like, from those samples? One or two songs off of Youtube, maybe, if they’re up there and haven’t already been DMCA’d. There’s something called “form” in music and it’s important to some of us. You can’t just drop into the middle of a song and have any idea what the experience of the song, let alone the full album, is like. Nor do I ever WANT my first experience with a record involve a bunch of hit-and-run needle drops in the middle of every fucking song. That is going to absolutely ruin my first full listen.

      Finally, my whole point with this unwieldy post is that the artists never, ever really get what’s coming to them from ANY record purchase unless they sell it directly themselves. Buy it through iTunes, and a huge chunk goes to Apple, who does nothing more than provide hosting and a tiny bit of database backend, all of which costs them basically nothing. The remainder goes to the issuing label. If it’s a major, then whether any of it ever sees the artist is a huge, huge “maybe” (and usually a “no”, and even in “yes” cases– the cases where both the advance has already been fully covered *and* there are no weird contractual outs for non-physical sales *AND* the label is being semi-honest in their accounting of online sales– we’re talking fractions of pennies on the dollar).

      This whole “support the artist” mantra is a totally empty one in our current in-between system, maintaining a totally outdated infrastructure of marketing and promotion that costs artists far more than it currently pays. I don’t believe in screwing the artist. The label system *does*, and always has, inherently. You better believe that when an artist I like or think I might like is selling their product directly, I pony up immediately. I am way, way more hesitant to buy anything through a mass-market download service because I know I’m just throwing my money away so they can continue to flip off the artists that entirely fund their virtually zero-overhead businesses. Sure, *maybe* the artist will see 20 cents from my $8-12 purchase, two years from now. Wouldn’t everyone be better off if I could just send the artist five bucks directly via Paypal and keep my Blogspot-“hosted” pirate copy?

      Yelling about Spotify is about as productive and morally meaningful as yelling about used record stores… or NEW record stores, for that matter. (And yes, I bought my copy of DMR’s _Waiting for the New Soul Rebels_– *and* the one Geno Washington live LP I own– used on original-pressing vinyl years ago. I am such an artist-killing pirate! I am sure that the labels are eagerly awaiting sales figures on both artists and turning over the huge residuals earned from all those honest folks within moments of sale completion.)

      • SiD said

        Not sure where the tirade is coming from. I’m completely uninterested in the money chain as there is none. I’ve been in every side of the business. For instance, when I ran a label, the $8 CD I sold was $3 for the record store $2 for the distributor, $1 for the band and $2 for me to cover the shipping, pressing, artwork, promotion, mailing, recording re-coop and staff. Eventually I had to raise prices to $10 as distributors and record stores just wouldn’t do all that work for so little money. For 99.9% of bands, there’s just no money in selling music (or renting it), so why bother to discuss which one is the worst?

        As far as bands making money from touring, I can say that I’ve never been on a tour that made money. When you’ve got 5 people on the road splitting a $200 door, you don’t cover food, gas, and the cost of the van, much pay anything toward instruments, cases, strings/heads, etc. No one is sending money home for rent. Well, maybe that .1% is.

        The answer is that there is no money in music and there never has been. So why are we belaboring this fact?

        I guess I’m just exceptionally dim to think I can tell in 90 seconds if I like a song well enough to invest 69 cents in it. I’ll work on that.

        • r said

          Heh, dude, sorry – I was not belittling you and my rhetoric was not to be interpreted as combative (I know you probably don’t know me well enough to know the “difference with me” from my reply alone). I personally would never buy music from iTunes; Amazon, well, I will do that sometimes. They have 30-second samples there and they are always faded-in / -out needle drops mid-song. For me, that’s soooo beyond useless. 90 seconds is a little better, but still.

          I am a seriously hardcore purist when it comes to experiencing both songs and albums in the manner / sequence in which they are released, and I literally teach things like form for a living (no, really– we have whole courses on this stuff). I have always thought a great deal about form (in one sense or another) and the overall dynamic experience over time when I write my own music. I don’t want people fucking with that at all, and if I will allow it, I will only allow it in a manner where I *can* control what sections of a larger work are heard and how. I don’t want some database server arbitrarily choosing what part to shove out as a taster sample. That wrecks the planned musical experience. I try to approach it from the same angle of mutual respect when it comes to someone else’s work. You can have your own feelings about it, but it doesn’t work at all for me to “sample” a record like that. I want to hear it the way it was intended– because, as you so rightly mention, nobody really does this for the money, they do it in the hopes that the listener will try and take in their art properly. Music is a time-based art form. You can’t fuck with the timeline.

          The whole point of my original post is in essentially agreement with you. I was responding to a student editorial saying that Spotify was going to kill music and that folks should buy stuff from iTunes et al instead. My point was that if the existing decades-old model hasn’t killed music so far, nothing will. But I am far more deeply troubled by throwing $10 down the Amazon (or iTunes, or label site, or whatever) well; these new systems of distribution have absolutely no accountability to the artist and they really are black boxes as far as artist compensation is concerned. What reports we *do* manage to get are NOT good from an artist perspective.

          The old model made sense for the technology of its time. That’s how we got into a mindset where it was OK to charge your $8-10 (or the RIAA’s SRP of $18.99, natch) for a payoff of $.25-$1 for the artist who made the whole damn thing go round. Now we’re in a place where the old model makes no sense whatsoever. Buyers don’t want physical media. Artists don’t need labels– except, possibly, for promotion. In a world where the product is not physical but practically metaphysical, there *are* no overhead charges for pressing, artwork, distribution, storage, shipping / mailing, you name it. Most artists are already recording at home, so a studio advance isn’t needed in many cases. Mastering standards and techniques having changed so drastically, that too is no longer really a major (or even measurable) expense. Hosting costs for the files are practically nothing. Marketing is the one remaining major expense and excuse for the existence of labels, but even that is way cheaper than it used to be.

          So my beef with the Internet and digital media is that there could finally be SOME money in recorded music for independent artists. They don’t seem to get that. They seem to think that they have to sell through a vendor like iTunes. They seem to think that they still need a label. Some might, I don’t know, but the future is in cutting out ALL middlemen and doing this ourselves / doing it properly. No more shitty lossy encodes or botched iTunes rips from pressed CDs for our buyers. No more waiting for payment. No more splitting of payment with third parties that are of less and less use with every passing day.

          Last week I just about had an aneurysm over this guy named Gavin Castleton. I just wanted to hear one of his records on the flight back from California. Couldn’t find much on the Blogspot scene, didn’t want to sample through Amazon at all (for aforementioned reasons), wasn’t in a place where I could listen to his stuff on Youtube to see if I might like it. He only sells through Amazon / iTunes / CDBaby. Again, why am I going to give these people $9 for a download if I don’t think he really stands a chance of ever seeing his money? Further, why should I pay $9 for MP3 files that are in no way equivalent to a CD? He has a website, it’s well done– why is he not selling FLAC copies of his own fucking records for $5, or even the requested full $9? I would so buy it if I could know it would go straight to him and I was getting something of CD quality instead of shitty 256kbps MP3s that have gone through who knows how many hands and transcoding processes.

          Finally, I said “fuck it” in the SFO food court and bought one of his records on the Android Amazon client. Listened on the plane, it sucked, the end. But I am still wanting to write this guy– why are you leaving this up to other people who are costing you so much money and probably giving you absolutely nothing in return?

          By the way, I won’t argue that tours are rarely profitable for originals indie acts. And your $5 wholesale cost was pretty damned low– so why set it at $5, and why is the artist on an honest indie still only getting $1 for their trouble?

          • katie s. said

            for what it’s worth, i’ve never heard an itunes preview that jumps in and out of parts of the song – it’s just the first 90 seconds. i can’t guarantee that it’s all that way; i’ve just never heard otherwise.

          • r said

            Amazon’s 30-second samples are from all over the place and are purposely randomized in location, and a lot of labels do this too, so I can sort of understand why Sid thought I was nuts. Still, I really prefer the first listen to a singular artist’s album to be carried out start to finish with no interruptions; in my old age, even knowing the single kind ruins it for me.

    • r said

      Also gotta say that Pandora is beyond useless for discovering new stuff, at least for someone like me, and I’ve rarely found that is any better. I seem to get my best new finds from the MP3 blogs and buried deep in the comment threads on Onion AV Club posts these days. Sad, but true.

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